Thursday, April 05, 2007

C'est impossible!

I saw through a student to one of their parents yesterday. We all know that kids are very likely to say what their parents say. When kids are stuck in a situation without an answer of their own, they're likely to say something that they've heard their parents say. Children are good at retaining and returning information, so that parents may not even realize that an off-hand remark in one situation may become a standard answer in many situations.

During a lesson, we were discussing a piece that was called "Les Casques" or something similar. The student asked if it was French or Spanish. I answered that based on the composer's name (Joeseph Boutine de Boismartier), it was probably French. When speaking the composer's name, I used my best "this might be how they pronounce it in French" accent, culminating with the last name of BWah-mar-tee-'yay. The student looked at me as if I had suddenly sprouted a third eye and flew around the room. "I didn't know you spoke French," he said. "I don't," said I.

Let me digress for a moment and explain the history of my French language knowledge. For most of my life, I've heard bad French accents in movies and TV shows. I've occasionally heard people who actually do speak French talk. And I once helped a girlfriend study French tenses, mostly by impressing her with my ability to mimic good pronunciation, even though I had no idea what I was saying. Since I had no actual background in French, this experience was frustrating, because so many of the letters in written French are not pronounced; makes it hard to read out loud.

My (apparently) crowd-pleasing French consists mostly of three things, comically simplified for blog purposes.

ONE: swallow all end-stop consonants ("croissant" becomes "croissannn").

TWO: accent a different syllable than you would if pronouncing the word in English. ("Disney" becomes "dis-NAY") But remember to keep the sound of the final syllable short (about the length of the "neigh" part of "neighbor", if pronouncing Disney)

THREE: keep your lips small and not far apart when making all sounds. If you purse your lips as though you were ready to kiss someone's cheek and then say a sentence, you'll be halfway to a French accent. Take the title of this post. "C'est" is pronounced like "say", but with a clipped 'y' sound. "impossible" is basically like the English, but accent the syllables as "im-pos-SEEB-lay". Viola! (And yes, I know it's "voila", but it's more humorous to me as a musician to write "viola!", especially since people may not know the difference unless they look closely.)

After witnessing my not-spectacular pronunciation of a name, my student said he knew no other languages. "I'm *proud* that I don't," he said again, smiling and laughing. I assume he said this so I would be forced to respect his position. I've noticed that people who feel self-conscious about what they believe will sometimes say it as an important pronouncement, as if that will somehow get around the silliness of what they just said. Also, it works to stifle any opposition, since they appear SO CONFIDENT that even though I know that the moon isn't made of cheese, I might not mention it for fear of them breaking out evidence and schooling me.

I expressed my surprise, and wondered why it wasn't necessary to graduate high school. My student said that it was required if you wanted to get a state scholarship, but not if you just wanted to graduate. And since he's hell-bent on attending the local community college (even though I know he could get into any of the local state universities), I suppose that's enough.

But I can always tell when something is coming from his parents. Having spent a fair amount of time talking with his mother, I can practically hear her tone when her child says certain things. And at no time was that more clear than when he said his next words after his admission of knowing no languages. "Well, I'll probably have to learn Spanish eventually, since by 2030, they'll be the majority population in the United States."

Err, what? How does a kid who spends most of his time playing XBox care anything about Census Bureau Ethnic Projections? At this point, I could see this was a much larger conversation than I could tackle in a 30 minute music lesson. So I rallied back around the music, saying "Well, we're dealing with a French import now. Start at number 17."

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